A new purpose for Oxford’s historic borough hall building?
By Steven Hoffman
At the Feb. 3 council meeting, Oxford Borough manager Brian Hoover announced that the new Borough Hall is nearing completion. The dust is settling at the Oxford Multi-Modal Transportation Center, or the “new garage” as the locals call it.
Plumbing, electrical, and elevator inspections have been completed.
Hoover said, “The carpet is going down, and glass partitions are going up. We will be moving in the last week of February or the beginning of March.”
Hoover explained that public works employees will be securing training on maintenance of the multi-level garage. The new facility has a total of 306 parking spaces including the outside area.
The street name is even being changed so this new $7 million project will not have an address known as One Octoraro Alley. Instead, Borough Council President Peggy Ann Russell explained, “We think Octoraro Way sounds much better.” Council will follow up with a resolution to formally make the change.
The Oxford Area Historical Association (OAHA) wasted no time informing council of their interest in purchasing the soon-to-be-vacated historic Oxford Borough Hall. Even before the current Borough Hall has been vacated, OAHA is the first in line to throw their hat into the ring as a potential buyer. They made a heartfelt presentation to council to secure the historic property for their future home.
Both OAHA president Ken Woodward and vice president Gail Roberts discussed OAHA’s plans for the property. Currently, OAHA is renting a property on Locust Street. They have been there for three years, during which time their acquisitions and files have grown extensively, making it necessary to move to a larger location.
Woodward said, “The Oxford Area Historical Association was established in 2000 by Dr. Faye Doyle and OAHA’s mission of preserving and educating the public about Oxford’s rich history has remained essentially the same. Faye is still an integral part of our organization, serving on the board, participating in our activities and in our weekly archive’s sessions.”
Woodward explained that OAHA has been very active in the Oxford community in providing activities and programs including:
1. Evening programs on topics related to local history such as Sunset Park, Heron’s Market, Bicknell’s Pool, The Parker Sisters and the history of East Nottingham Township. The speaker at their next program on Feb. 12 will be Susannah Brody, in period dress, presenting a living history as Rebecca Lukens, matriarch of Lukens Steel Company. Programs are videotaped and become part of OAHA archives and can be viewed by the public.
The programs are free to the public and held at the Masonic Lodge. Attendance at these programs average over 50 people and some have drawn as many as 200 people. Information on programs and other activities can be found on their website, oxfordhistorical.org, and on Facebook.
2. OAHA conducts oral histories of Oxford residents. In these interviews, participants relate their recollections of events in Oxford history as they lived it. The taped interviews are available for the public to view.
3. To foster young students’ interest in history, the group works with the Oxford Educational Foundation and the school district to present living history programs for students in Oxford. Some of those included Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Susannah Brody, (appearing as a colonial story teller ) and Ned Hector, a black Revolutionary War hero who participated in the Battle of the Brandywine.
4. OAHA participates in community events such as First Friday and the Connective Festival.
5. The group has also published several books on the local history of area churches, Oxford doctors, Oxford participants in the Civil War ,as well as a compilation of local history articles John Bradley wrote for the Chester County Press.
6. From time to time, OAHA presents awards to community members or organizations who participated in activities that have helped to preserve Oxford history and its architecture.
7. In the past, the group played a significant role in several walking tours of Oxford and they are currently developing a self-guided walking tour of the Borough.
OAHA depends on fundraising to continue their mission. Fundraising and membership dues are vital to the continued growth of programs and the organization itself.
Woodward said, “It was important for us to secure a location, and our current place has served us well. But now we do need more room.”
Roberts spoke to council about the groups’ archival collection and the importance of securing a location that enables them to provide space for storing acquisitions and room for their quickly growing archival activities.
“We not only serve the local area,” Roberts explained, “but we receive historic acquisitions from people all over the country, and questions from persons with connections to Oxford or those that were previous residents.”
She explained that people have come in to research information on family members, new owners of historic properties, and information on former businesses.
Roberts said, “our Archives project started because board members wanted to organize some of the items that had been donated to OAHA and many that Dr. Faye Doyle had collected.”
She explained that Peter Young, who was an archivist in the Library of Congress and a neighbor of past-president Vern Ringler, helped the volunteers get started. Young suggested using the Library of Congress classification system and the Access Data Base. The committee worked at the old schoolhouse building in East Nottingham Township. That building was crowded and didn’t have room for displays or visitors.
Roberts said, “When I joined the group, I took an online course on the Access System to help me learn how to use this tool.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Before we rented our present building, we were asked to do a display for the Arts Alliance in November of 2016—a pop-up museum, “ Roberts said. “ Board members all worked on displays, and we had almost 300 visitors in the several weeks our exhibit was there.”
After a fundraising effort led by Ringler, the group was able to move to their Locust Street location.
Roberts emphasized, “Having a visible location in town has encouraged donations and brought in volunteers. We have a dedicated group of volunteers who work every Monday morning and process everything that is donated. When donations come in, forms are filled out with descriptions, subjects, time periods, lists of items, and people involved. We try to include as many names as possible because people may want to learn about their family members. We file the paper forms, and I enter the information into Access. With the data base, we have the ability to search on topics and names. We now have over 3,300 items catalogued. Some of these individual entries are several pages long.”
Items in the OAHA archives include newspaper articles, photos, maps, books, property deeds, minutes from local organizations, business records and receipts, scrapbooks, and diaries. Some of the show-stopping items they have acquired are objects such as a flute used by an Oxford resident during the Civil War, the Oxford Hotel Registry with President Ulysses S. Grant’s signature, a Bible donated to Rev. Samuel Dickey from the Oxford Female Seminary, shaving mugs used by Hans Olsen and boots from the Rotary Club’s Mirthquake production, Crude Ranch from 1952, worn by local entertainer, Cecil Miller.
OAHA provides a valuable service to the community and continues to provide historic information to local government entities, property owners, and, most importantly, individuals researching their ancestries.
“We have had a steady stream of visitors, an estimated 225 people in 2018, and 200 people in 2019. And those numbers do not include the people who attend our programs and activities,” Roberts said.
OAHA is the organization that local authors and journalists reach out to when they are trying to put a historic puzzle together. The group also submits their own articles to the Oxford Chamber of Commerce’s publication, the Oxfordian, based on research done in their Archives and in the library and by using Historic Commission Records and interviews with local citizens. They are a valued partner to the Oxford Library, and the Cecil County Historical Society, and have worked to digitize the editions of the Oxford Press which are on microfilm in the library.
“We need to expand to have more room to store files, objects, and displays,” Roberts informed council. “We are filling the last file drawers and don’t have room for more file cabinets. We now have two climate-controlled storage units. We don’t want to turn away valuable donations, because when visitors come in with questions, we rely on what we have documented in our data base.”
The group attends workshops for non-profits run by the Chester County Community Foundation and other organizations in order to learn how to improve the association and increase their fundraising efforts.
“We have started to work with consultant Krys Sipple, who has also been working with Neighborhood Services Center. She will help us with Strategic Planning and possibly a capital campaign,” Roberts explained.
Preserving the rich history of the Oxford area is the goal of OAHA, and they are focused on the historic Oxford Borough Hall to house the valued historical acquisitions.
“We have come a long way in the last several years, and want to keep growing. This train station would be an ideal location for our archives,” Roberts said. “If there is anyone in the community who would like to purchase the train station and lease it to us, please step forward. If not, we would like the opportunity to work out something with the Borough so that we could occupy this historic building.”